The process for seeking asylum is exhaustingly long. Journeys to enter the European Union begin with crossing the treacherous waters of the Aegean Sea from Turkey, trudging through the Balkans, crossing borders of Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, Austria, then finally Germany. For some, it is even further onwards to the Scandinavian countries. This is only just the beginning for the refugees. The wait in the asylum centres then begins. It can take months, and in some countries, even years. At least in countries like Germany and Austria, refugees have access to shelter, a warm bed, access to facilities and warm food.
Not for the refugees in the city of Trieste in Italy though. Trieste is a seaport city that lies in north eastern Italy, neighbouring Slovenia and is today, considered one of the richest regions of Italy.
From the abandoned silos of city, next to its main train station, we received reports of a few hundred refugees sleeping rough. The women and children are squashed in the city’s already overcrowded centres, we were told. The men, it seemed, are left to fend for themselves.
The men always seem to get the short end of the stick. I concede that women and children are vulnerable and are physically less able, but the question “What about the men?” remained constantly on my mind. The physical and mental strain on these men to guide their families on this difficult journey is tremendous. The sacrifices they make so that their women and children are slightly more comfortable than they are, deserve every ounce of respect and just as much aid.
So we sprang into action. We made a date with B, our contact on the ground, asked her for a wish-list, collected the basic necessities like sleeping bags, mats, tents and warm winter clothing – and made the 8 hours drive to Trieste.
When we arrived onsite, I winced. Photos I received from B prior did not prepare me for witnessing the conditions in real life. My first view of the silos was mixed with the stench of urine. Obviously, there aren’t any facilities for them onsite. I learned from B the men have been banned from the nearest toilet facilities a few days prior – which are located at the train station next door. B shrugged in dismay when I asked her why.
We walked in. Faces and bodies began to emerge from between the pillars of the silos. Some curious. Most of them wary. Rubbish was strewn everywhere. Through one of the windows, I could see some old card boxes pulled together to form a make-shift shelter. I use that word loosely because it would topple in a heartbeat should a gust of wind blow through. The building was derelict. It was a grim sight. With the exception of leaky roofs, these men had nothing else to protect them from the elements. I cussed the city silently. Their treatment of asylum seekers is unacceptable.
Some of the men recognised B and greeted her warmly. It is obvious that they know, respect and trust her. B was working alone tirelessly to help these men for months before any outside help arrived. A crowd soon begin the form. I did a quick count: There were probably about 80 men. Some just teenagers, some much older, in their 50s and even 60s. An old man wearing his traditional Afghan garb – which was originally white, now caked with dirt – was in a thin hoodie, socks and sandals. He looked at me and I smiled. He didn’t smile back. Nonetheless, I made a mental note to approach him later.
By now, word probably got out that aid had arrived as a bigger crowd formed.
With the help of a few refugees who speak excellent English, we managed to first distribute our pre-packed food bags and our cartons of bananas. Earlier, we went into a supermarket and cleaned them out of ALL their bananas in the store. Bananas are always well received along the Balkan route and definitely no exception here. I got some bananas from Dom, broke away from the crowd to look for the old man I remembered from earlier. He was standing away from the crowd, and watching us impassively. I smiled again and gestured to the bananas in my hand. His face suddenly broke in the biggest smile, gestured towards the crowd and said “thank you. Too many people.”
Yes! English! I asked him for his shoe size and promised to come back. He’d asked for a scarf too. “Scarf, shoes for that man” – I kept repeating to myself before going back to join the distribution.
To avoid being overwhelmed, we focused on distributing only one product at a time, i.e only handing out sleeping bags or Sized S jackets or blankets before proceeding to hand out other items. Thanks to the silent superheroes on our logistics team for sorting all the donated items properly, it worked out well. Other than the distribution of shoes (which are always high in demand everywhere) that got a little chaotic and resulted into a little scuffle (but they soon sorted themselves out), we managed to distribute our collection of jackets, socks, underwear and toiletries without incident. I had quietly set aside a pair of Size 42s for the old man and together with a hat and some socks, I brought everything to him after. In such situations, it can be difficult to ensure that the weaker and quieter ones are not drowned out by their younger and stronger counterparts. We were determined to be as fair as possible.
What was useful were the short breaks we took in-between distribution by closing our vans to break up any “frenzy”. Chatting with the men during these breaks, while keeping an eye out for those who were still lacking in certain basic items proved helpful. I was however, never once worried for my safety or feared that I would be mobbed. The men remained respectful throughout, and it was very sweet how protective some of them were of us, asking their slightly more enthusiastic counterparts to give us enough space during distributions.
I did however, get very frustrated after our distribution. I still spotted many in shoes with broken soles, and some in just socks and sandals. It was less than ten degrees Celcius that day. The temperature was slowly and surely going to fall further in the night. I sighed. We never seem to have enough Size 40s to 43s. I resolved to come back the next day.
Part Two coming soon.